Quick Questions with Adam Langer, author of Thieves of Manhattan

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If Eve was the first fake memoirist, then the first literary critic was a snake.

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Josh Spilker | November 11, 2010

Adam Langer's new book / bookapex.com

Adam Langer's new book / bookapex.com

Thieves of Manhattan, the recent book from Adam Langer (Spiegel & Grau 2010), is a metacommentary on memoirs and action heists with literary publishing as its backdrop. Ian Minot is a struggling writer, working at a coffee cafe and jealous when his sometimes-lover Anya is invited to read at a prestigious literary event. After a confrontation with a stranger who reads a bad memoir for days on end at his coffee shop, Ian is confronted with an intriguing offer that could catapult him into literary fame.

Thieves of Manhattan is very inventive and very addictive, turning genre novel on its head. He also works and develops a whole new set of slang for the literary set. Langer is also the author of Crossing California and several other books. He can be found on the web at www.adamlanger.com and he answered a few questions below:

Do you think this “crisis” in memoirs will pass or will it always be with us now? Or has it always been the case that memoirs are fake and now we have more tools at our disposal to find impostors?

I think “crisis” is too strong a word. But, as long as storytellers have readers and listeners, some of us will always be a bit tempted to embellish, to omit, to invent. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve wondered about the distinction between fake and real memoirs. Perhaps the question is just how much is fake and how much is real? You could probably view the history of invention in storytelling as having begun all the way back in the Garden of Eden when Eve said “Apple? What do you mean, apple? I didn’t eat any apple.” But, in that case, if Eve was the first fake memoirist, then it might be useful to point out that the first literary critic was a snake.

Did some of the criticism levied at Ian's fiction in the book–such as the accusation that he writes small characters with small lives–ever been said of you?

Actually, though my fiction and nonfiction and everything that exists in between have received a fair amount of criticism, I don’t recall anyone saying that my characters’ lives were too small—perhaps uninteresting or unsympathetic or not worthy of hundreds of pages of prose, but not too small. If the larger question is whether I was using the criticism of Ian’s work to respond to criticism of my own, the answer here is no, too, unless you want to count my own self-criticism. The conversations between Jed Roth and Ian Minot are more representations of the inner dialogues I have regarding my own writing rather than a response to any reader or critic.

What was the idea behind the literary-inspired slang terms? What were your favorites of those terms and did you have a few more that didn't make it?

When I sit down to write a book, I frequently look up at my bookshelves and imagine what’s not there and what I’d like to see there. In this case, I wanted to read a fast-moving, literary thriller with elements of adventures and noirs that I loved. But I couldn’t find the right book, so I wrote my own. And I thought that, if I wanted to immerse my reader and myself in a literary world, this world needed to have its own slang just as hard-boiled novels and speculative fiction frequently have their own jargon. I’m not sure if I have any favorites—I’m more attached to the rhythms the words make rather than the words themselves.

Among those I cut were “carver” for short story, taken from the name Raymond Carver, but which sounded too much like a Thanksgiving turkey; “Spiegel” for red pencil, taken from the name of my editor Cindy Spiegel, which I found too insider-y and self-referential; “To Rovner” for the act of pleasuring oneself, taken from the character of “Larry Rovner” in my novels Crossing California and The Washington Story, which again I found too self-referential; and the crude term “Chatterley,” which I’ll leave to your imagination.

Is there a 'takeaway' that you're wanting to impart throughThe Thieves of Manhattan? That literary fiction sucks? That it should consider more genre writing? Or that memoirs suck? And that they're all forgeries? Or perhaps none of the above

Perhaps I should write with a “takeaway” in mind, but I really don’t; writing for me is much more about process than about outcome, much more about the questions that are raised than the answers at which one arrives. My favorite writing forces me to reexamine my own preconceptions, to view the world in a different way. And if readers come away from Thieves with their conceptions of Truth, Lies, Fiction, and Nonfiction challenged, then that’s ideal. I wouldn’t say that all memoirs suck, or are forgeries, but I do think it’s true that they all are “constructed” in some way, and that as a reader, one must be somewhat aware of the construction process that goes into it. And I don’t think literary fiction sucks, by the way, just the middle 150 pages of Freedom. Lately, I’ve been reading Farmer by Jim Harrison and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson; they don’t suck.

As a memoirist yourself, should we trust what you write? How has writing this book & telling this story affected the way you approach reading/writing non-fiction?

I’m not sure if I want readers to trust me; I’d prefer for them to start out trusting themselves and their own beliefs, then realize that they can’t do that either. As for whether this book affected how I approach reading and writing nonfiction, I’m not sure it has, but the book is, hopefully, an accurate reflection of how I approach reading and writing.

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